Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Teaching in New England - Braefield 1916-1923

Photo: this is where the Braefield railway siding once stood.

The following material is drawn from Neil Whitfield's blog. I am including it because it provides a snapshot of the life of a teacher in a New England country school in the period 1916-1926.

The material was written by around 1968 by Neil's mother Jean (1911-1996). Her father, Roy Christison, began his career as a pupil teacher at Croydon Park Public School in 1902. Upon completion of his training , he was posted to Spencer on the Hawkesbury River and then in the early days of the war to Felled Timber Creek near Gunning.

From 1916 to 1923 he taught at Braefield, a locality just over six kilometres south of Quirindi on what is now the Kamilaroi Highway. From there he was posted to Dunolly, near Singleton in the Hunter Valley and then to Milton and then Shellharbour — where Neil's mother and father met — and finally to Caringbah in Sydney's Sutherland Shire, whence he retired in the late 1940s.

The material that follows describes the Braefield experience and is, I think, pretty typical of the life of a dedicated country school teacher at the time. It also provides a rather nice picture of life in a small farming community.

Later I will draw from this material to provide colour and feel when I come to write the story of education in New England.

Mrs Whitfield wrote:

It was January 1916, and he was to continue his career, this time in another small school, this one in the North West of NSW.

After puffing its way up the Liverpool Ranges and panting down the other side through the darkened night, the train paused for breath momentarily at a medium sized country town [Quirindi], and the young man, his wife and family climbed stiffly out. This town, built on a series of hills and flats and having a charm of its own, was to be home for the next two months as there was no government residence alongside [Braefield] school. An enterprising farmer was building a house on an acre and a half of land, just opposite the railway siding which bore the name of the school where he was to toil for seven years. With the cottage completed, the stage was set.

It was a tiny place, neither village nor hamlet, just a group of three Railway cottages where lived the men who tended the platform, a store, and a post office of sorts, the house for “Sir”, and down the road a piece (a dusty road in dry weather and a black soil bog in wet) on a narrow strip of land between the railway line and the road were two small buildings, the old slab school and the new building of weatherboard with cypress pine linings and the inevitabe tin roof. One could glimpse here and there small houses scattered far and wide, each on its own acreage, each representing pioneer folk who were farming this very prosperous wheat and sheep district. Here lived most of the 40 pupils who were to make up the enrolment of the six classes in the one teacher school. Some children came miles each day on foot, or on horseback, two or three to a horse, or very affluent ones in a sulky driven by the “eldest” in the family.

It was quite a challenging task to teach forty children in one room over six classes with ages ranging from 5 to 15. A deal of thought, of preparation, and great organising ability, were needed to keep each section actually engaged in quieter activities. Much has been said for and against the standard in these small schools, but I feel that given an earnest and sincere teacher the pupils gained much more than they lost, and the students of this particular school proved in the years to come that they could take their place in any field of commerce, profession, or industry, without apologising for their humbler beginnings.

In this building the younger children were taught to read, to write, to spell, to add, subtract, multiply, and all that is learned in any Kindergarten or Infants section of a modern school. To the older children in the upper classes the concept had to be more attractive and more challenging; their interest had to be aroused.

The worlds of History, Geography, and our spoken language, English, were wells of untapped splendour waiting to be opened. To these bush children it was a fascinating exerience to learn, and they were avid for knowledge. A lover of poetry himself, my father instilled in his pupils enough of the splendour of the written word to make them long to find more for themselves, which is so very necessary. He introduced them to Shakespeare, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Byron, Burns, the Brownings, Coleridge, Longfellow, Scott, Stevenson, Dickens… As for Australian poetry, it seemed to find an echo in the very hearts of the bush children, as Lawson, Kendall, Paterson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Dorothea Mackellar, George Essex Evans, Bernard O’Dowd, and anyone else who had found a place in the Treasury of Australian Verse, wrote of things and places the children knew. Such was our heritage, to store in our minds for all times.

The old school building was the social centre of the community. It was used (with the permission of the Education Department) as meeting hall, church hall (all denominations), dance hall, and polling booth, so its walls echoed to much, and its floors were trodden by many feet.

In the year 1916 from this farming community so far removed from the centre of a world-shattering war farmers’ sons were fighting overseas and the busy farmers’ wives found time to meet, to knit, to sew, to send gifts and packages; the old school was the headquarters. Each boy going overseas was given a farewell and presented with a gold watch, and each gallant lad who returned was given a Welcome Home and an engraved gold medal. This typified the Australian spirit at its best.

There were other functions too. Breaking up at Xmas for the school itself, fund-raising affairs for the local Cricket team. Oh yes, the lads played a neat game of Cricket and “Sir” could bowl a mean ball. Most functions were held when the moon was full so that there would be more light for the merrymakers to get into the centre for these socials. They came on foot in family groups carrying the old friend of country folk, the hurricane lamp to light the way. They came by horse, in sulkies, on drays, and very occasionally by motor car. The old building would soon be filled to overflowing and long forms outside would seat the rest beneath the trees in the full moonlight, quite a romantic and beautifully peaceful setting.

Soon the “music men” would stand and the dancing feet would fly. I can see those “music men” now. Father leading with his silver toned harmonica, a poultry farmer with his fiddle, and a railway fettler with an accordion. Eyes closed, feet tapping, heads swaying, they would slip from waltz to Schottische to polka, anything that kept the throbbing, lifting lilt of the dance. Beautiful, tender, simple pleasures, earned by hard work and enjoyed to the utmost. From early evening to the wee sma’ hours the musicians played and when after a supper such as country women alone can provide, the tired feet walked lightly and happily homewards, it had been so worthwhile.

We came to know this district well, knew it in drought, in flood, in good seasons and bad, in spring when the good earth was covered in sweet green grass, and golden wattles bloomed in the distant hills and young wheat grew straight and tall, when parrots and parakeets wove gaily patterned circles in the sky above and the promise of the future was good and free and clean. We knew it at harvest time when the ripe golden wheat lying in sheaves filled the air with an aroma all its own, and the whirr of the harvester broke the stillness of hot languid days. We knew it in autumn when soft winds blew, giving welcome relief from summer’s intense blistering heat, and in winter when the snow caps of the Liverpool Ranges sent overnight temperatures to freezing point, and thick white frosts lay on the ground, to give way to more golden sun-filled glorious days with skies of deepest azure, the full circle back to spring again.

Tragedy was there too. Dry years when the dust was blinding, the water nonexistent, and the sheep moved slowly along the road as the drovers looked vainly for fresh feed, and the poor sheep lay dead and dying.

And, oh! it’s a terrible thing to die of thirst in the scrub Out Back. (“Out Back” — Henry Lawson)

This Australia of ours is a land of such contrasts!

Even in our semi-isolation the fingers of death came suddenly when the pneumonia flu raged in 1919. One by one the whole community was stricken. The schoolie was the only one of his family still on his feet. He nursed his loved ones tenderly, and as medical assistance was hard to come by, he was called in to many homes to advise, to help, to administer, to comfort when comfort was needed, and to sustain and strengthen flagging and saddened hearts — a friend indeed.

Came 1920 — January 26 1920 — and in the early hours of another hot summer morning “Sir” and his family alight at the siding which is home. They had been away six weeks by the sea. There were four of us now — had been since 1917 — and in the winter of the year the little Mother with the lovely brown eyes would give birth to her fifth child. But the unborn babe was born dead, and the lovely brown eyes were shadowed for many a long day.

The drought still held and that January day was hot. Father harnessed the horse and left for town to get much needed supplies; it was Anniversary Day, but public holidays mattered little then. The Mother had much to do — clothes to unpack, things to sort and ready for the year ahead. It was a funny day, everything so still, so breathless: Dorothea Mackellar’s “hot gold hush of noon.” Father returned about 2 pm. The sky to the west was frightening. Black rolling clouds, streaked with purple, rose high into the heavens obliterating the sun, covering the earth with a deep purple tinge. The sensation of time suspended, of threatening catastrophe, of the unknown more frightening always than the known. The clouds rolled closer, ever closer, uncannily closer. The soft west wind changed. The stillness changed to a gurgling sudden roar, as the wind rose to gale force bringing with it the dreaded enemy of the inland — the dust cyclone. Everything was dark as midnight as the cyclone struck.

The little house shook, as a quarter of a century later houses shook under Nazi onslaught. It rocked and swayed as Father guided his family to shelter under a stout oak table (Neil added: I well remember that table, which was in the home of my childhood in Sutherland; a matching bureau is in my living room to this day) in the dining room. Minutes passed, terrifying. Faintly through the wall came a tapping and a neighbour’s voice: “Are you all right in there?” He was a no account man, and yet medals have been given for less. He had run 200 yards from his home through dark and dust, falling iron from the roof, splintered, shattered branches of trees, and death and destruction at the shoulder, to give assistance if needed.

Twenty minutes later and the storm had passed leaving in its wake across the plains utter desolation — huge stout-trunked deep-rooted trees blown out of the earth and splintered as if by a mighty axe. The little house that had been a home was completely and utterly wrecked, except for one room — the dining room in which the family sheltered. God’s guiding hand? Perhaps.

The warmth and kindness of the folk who took the family in, gave them clothes and food, were a beacon of light, and the grazier who fixed and altered a disused farm house for this family which he had taken into his large heart, until the shattered home could be rebuilt — to them our everlasting gratitude and thanks.

The drought broke and the grass grew tall. Once again this loved country of ours was showing its softer side and became again a land of promise.

Father still laboured among his flock, respected by all who knew him for his unfailing devotion to his daily tasks of teaching not only during school hours. He coached older children for higher exams during evenings to help them to a better life. His was truly a labour of love, for he never accepted monetary pay for his efforts. Beside this the midnight oil burned as he studied for his own Grade Exams so he could obtain promotion for himself, his wife and family. To sit for his own exams he walked four miles to the town railhead to get the Night Mail — the mail trains did not stop at our siding — to the District Inspector’s Office over one hundred miles down the line, where from 9 am to 6 pm he tackled examination papers, then back on a northbound Night Mail to walk four miles again and arrive home in the early hours of another day, school as usual and the long anxious wait for results.

Another year slipped by so quickly, as years have the habit of doing. More young ones beginning their education, some older ones leaving, mostly to help on the farms, to become good solid citizens with kindly thoughts always of the man who had guided their thirst for knowledge so expertly.

In the summer of 1921 when the grass was waist high everywhere and dry as a tinderbox one of the Railway men was burning off some rubbish on a clear, still day. Suddenly there was one of those unexplained freaks of nature which happen on the stillest of days: the whirlwind lifted the rubbish fire and neatly deposited it in the middle of the paddock surrounding the house where she of the brown eyes was alone, apart for her sister who was on a rare visit from the city. The fire spread, and with smoke billowing across the road fettlers left their job, the night officers left the railway station unattended, and Father and the older boys from the school came running.

Mother packed everything she could into cases and carried them to safety, and Auntie, well she swung an axe like a veteran, cutting green saplings to beat out the fire, and beat it out they did, stopping it just as it scorched the foundations of that small house. Fate? I wonder.

About this time too one of the senior boys had gone home early to find his mother had been bitten by a deadly snake. He rode his bike back for “Sir” because he knew here he would get help. Sir did not fail him either, but taking the bike rode the two miles to the boy’s home, shouting instructions to the Railway officer on the way to contact the Doctor; the Railway had the only telephone. After applying first aid, he took the woman at breakneck speed in a sulky toward the distant town and hospital. Halfway to town they met the Doctor’s buggy — he too was on his way to give help — and the mother’s life was saved.

At the beginning of January 1923 word went round the District: “‘Sir’ was leaving.” He had been given his first Headmastership further down the line in a much more thickly populated area, and only a mile from a very prosperous and beautiful town. It was almost like going to Heaven for Sir and his family after nearly fifteen years of severe apprenticeship. However, they did not begrudge one year of it, because they felt they had achieved much.

On another hot January morning, exactly seven years after that first long night trip, the good folk of the District gathered at one of the bigger farm houses, where there was ample room for large gatherings, to say farewell to their beloved “Sir”. They came from the town four miles away, they came by sulky, by dray, on foot, and they came miles just to be there and sing “Auld Lang Syne”. So ended an era.

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